finishing what I started, part 2

Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi: Andy’s mom recommended this and Andy got it for me, so I figured those were two good reasons to read it.
It was quite an amazing book. The author returned to Iran after graduate school in the U.S., just before the revolution which put the Ayatollah and religious law in power. Life under this regime seems at worst terrifying: as under all totalitarian regimes, no one’s life or property is assured, either can be taken under any or no pretext. At best, things are so surreal as to be almost comical: one could either laugh or cry, and it’s not just because I’m American and western that things seem this way to me. Nafisi, the “girls” in her literature class who provide the frame for Nafisi’s memoir, and many other people feel the same way. As Nafisi puts it, the generation prior to the Ayatollah’s power experienced the most progressive policies in the world regarding women, now suddenly women are forced into veils, robes, and the limited roles deemed acceptable for them by the reigning power.
The book is structured first through the framework of a class Nafisi started after having left her University post, and the lives of the women who participated in the class. Within this, the book is divided into four chapters, each based on the works of different authors: Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen.

The reviews of this book on Amazon are mixed, and while I think most Amazon reviews average out to about the right rating, in this case I find myself wondering who these people are. The negative reviewers seem to dislike the book for one or more of the following reasons:
1. Nafisi hasn’t suffered enough to be allowed to talk about her experiences. What the heck? Nafisi describes her friends and former students imprisoned for no reason, killed in purges, or otherwise silenced by the government; never knowing when she would be next. She describes sitting up in the hall outside her childrens’ rooms night after night, trying to blot the sounds of falling bombs out of her mind by obsessively reading James, Nabokov, and Austen, never knowing if her family would still be alive in the morning. Again I ask, who are these people?
2. The book was not what the reviewer expected. The book was not what I expected either. I was expecting more about the “girls”: the group of women who Nafisi, after leaving her professorship at the University of Tehran due to their demand that she wear the veil and robe and tailor her teaching to their specifications, asked to attend a private class on literature at her apartment. (One or two reviewers objected to her use of the term “girls” for these students; in response to this, I can only suggest, in the politest possible terms of course, that these persons try to get over themselves).
The “girls” do provide a framework for the book. This class itself appears mostly at the beginning and end of the book, although the individual students appear at other points, when Nafisi describes the classes she had taught and experience she had had at the University of Tehran. Through them, we learn more about the contrast between the girls as themselves versus as the girls as the Islamic regime wants them to be. This is seen most clearly as Nafisi describes them coming into her apartment, each in nearly identical veil and robe; once inside they remove the robes (which they must wear on the streets), and shimmer into individuality–their appearance, clothing choices, etc.
But the book also describes events of the revolution, the war with Iraq, etc., through vignettes of other students from her classes, as well as her own experiences and those of her friends and acquaintences.
It seems that one should judge a book on its own terms, rather than what you think it should be. This book is a memoir, not a history, and its viewpoint is very individual and personal, and as such is more powerful than a simple recounting of events.
3. Nafisi is too conservative to be paid any attention. I’m not sure how these reviewers know this. Nafisi describes her early days demonstrating for revolution in Iran during her student days in the U.S.; she seems to regret this, for obvious reasons, but otherwise does not allude to her political beliefs. So I’m not sure why the reviewers think she’s conservative or what this has to do with anything, but there you go.
Having in a roundabout way described the book, I will now go off on my usual tangent, having to do with the requirement that all women must wear the veil and robe in public, because the mere sight of a woman–even so much as a strand of hair–can supposedly cause men to sin through improper thoughts. The responsibility is all on women, apparently, to protect men from lust. Nafisi describes imagining that she has disappeared, is invisible, while wearing the robe and veil. She also makes a sharp distinction between a woman’s choosing to wear the veil out of religious faith, versus being forced to wear it. She describes the opposition of her grandmother, a very religious Muslim, to the forced wearing of the veil–she felt it made her own choice to wear it out of faith meaningless, if everyone had to wear it because someone made them.
It struck me that when the women Nafisi describes were forced to wear the robe and veil, it was not just their bodies that were being hidden, silenced, blotted out; it was that person. In theory, women were still allowed to attend classes at the university, to use their minds, were real human beings, but when the government demanded that their bodies be hidden, it necessarily meant that that whole person was devalued–whether they admitted it or not and whether they knew it or not. On the theoretical level, our bodies and our personalities are not separable, they are intimately connected. And this has implications on the mental and physical plane. When one sees a person covered from head to toe, especially knowing that that person was not dressed that way out of choice but because they are required to, it affects the way one feels about that person. That person’s body is dangerous, hence that whole person is suspect.
And on the more physical plane, while the government claimed that the veil and robe protected women from lechery; in fact government policy demanded that these women be routinely searched for make up and other contraband, subjecting them to sexual harrassment by lecherous guards on a regular basis. Hiding the women’s bodies didn’t protect them, it heightened the awareness of their bodies, and of their bodies as potential danger zones, needing to be regulated by the (male) officialdom.
Now moving away on the promised tangent, I believe that both Christianity and our (Western) culture is haunted by the Greek belief that spirit is separable from and superior to matter. This belief is very deeply entrenched in our worldview, but I think is fundamentally mistaken.
To give some concrete examples, I believe that liberalism, in its Marxist/socialist manifestation, is in part based on this distinction in its attempt at abolition of personal property. The liberal slogan “people are more important than property” is certainly true, but it makes the mistake of thinking that individual rights and individual dignity are separable from property rights. But humans are not spirits, we are physical beings who are dependent on the physical world, and if our rights to our little part of the physical world from which we derive our physical sustence is subject to abrogation by a force outside ourselves–through excessive taxation, outright seizure of property, or even communal ownership if its forced rather than voluntary–that necessarily impinges on our human rights.
Of course, Marxism was developed in opposition to what Marx & his cronies saw as the economic, rather than political, abrogation of property rights of the poor by the rich. At its base, then, the physical existence of the human being was at stake (Marx more or less denied the spiritual aspect). But when it comes to the move to socialism, if everyone owns the land & property, it simply means that no one owns it. No one is assured of physical sustenance, because no one owns the means of physical sustenance. If “communism” is voluntary, each person in the group depends on each other for the continuation of their physical existence, which can work as long as trust between the community members continues (humans being what they are, this usually doesn’t last very long; hence I maintain my belief that personal property and capitalism are the worst systems, except for all the others). But if it isn’t voluntary, and except in small communities it never is, or at least historically never has been, then some people have to be forced into it. And the entity invested with the power to force people has the power over the property, thus has the power over the physical existence of the people over whom they reign, thus they have power over those people.
On the other hand, conservatives often expect that people born into poverty pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, through a triumph of spirit and will over physical circumstances. That’s what our immigrant ancestors did, after all, and that’s what many people still do today.
But when access to the necessities for physical existence are not assured–and when it is perceived that this lack of physical security is due to factors outside of one’s own control, by government policy, by abusive family members, by unstable political or economic circumstances (applicable in our inner cities as well as in other places around the world)–this affects the “spirit” as well. When because of this apparently chaotic situation, it is uncertain what way of interacting with the world will lead to the desired results, the best way of reacting is by refusing to interact with it. So people try to build their own worlds with more predictable or controllable rules, through gangs etc., or try to adapt to changing circumstances, thus never developing or adhering to a standard code of ethics or of appropriate behavior.
Our physical selves are not separable from our spirits. It may be a linguistic accident that I can even speak of the two things as if they were different things. On the other hand, one of the characteristics of humans is that we can triumph over our surroundings–we can even choose to put ourselves into adverse and insecure surroundings in order to do what we think is right.
But the key to the latter is the choice; and as for the former, though we can triumph over our surroundings, no one has the right to deliberately take from someone the means to his or her physical existence, nor their security that their physical needs will continue to be met–any more than they have the right to take away their freedom of speech, freedom of worship, etc. In our particular economy and society, this security means the right to personal property. If we are mystified as to why some people in society seem to be refusing to play the capitalist game, to do the things we think we need to do to acquire physical security; the answer is not for some external entity to take from one group and give to another. That simply means that no one, neither rich nor poor, has security.
I’m not trying to argue against progressive taxation nor any particular type of governmental welfare program, only that the later must be kept within bounds and that the former is only a stopgap. Rather, ultimately we need to work on conditions–to eliminate economic and political forces which prevent some people from participating in the system (until and if somebody comes up with a better system). This is much harder than simply implementing a program, because it’s a moving target: if, for example, racism is no longer written into public policy, where is it? How do we fight against it? Government action has to be a part of that, but isn’t the whole story.
This little essay may be far too disorganized to convey my meaning, but I’m supposed to be working on my dissertation, so will leave it unedited. To conclude, if you were thinking of reading this book, not to worry: my various ramblings come entirely from me and not from the book, so you may go ahead and read it without fear.

2 Responses to “finishing what I started, part 2”

  1. kim says:

    I read Reading Lolita in Tehran very recently and had a mixed opinion of it as well (I thought some of the sections were excellent and others good but not as compelling). In addition to all your good points about women being forced to wear the veil, I was struck by how Nafisi portrayed the power of literature in transforming the girls’ worldviews, and why the powers that be in Iran (and even reactionary pockets here in America) find books to be so dangerous.
    Also, is there anybody out there who still seriously advocates against private property? You seem to set that viewpoint up in contrast to the (fairly mainstream, I’d guess) conservative bootstraps perspective, but I never encounter people who actually advocate that we abolish private ownership.

  2. michele says:

    Kim, I’m glad you read this book. I actually thought while reading it that it was one you might like. And you’ve probably read more of those authors and books she cites than I have, though it’s inspired me to try a few of them now.
    Regarding the Property issue, whenever I think about this I think about something I once saw on Romper Room as a much younger person. The lady held up various items, including a copy of a book, and said things like “This is my book. I bought it, I own it, and I can do whatever I like with it. I can tear it up, I can throw it away, or I can keep it and take care of it so that I can keep reading it over and over.”
    I was wondering while writing the above if that is really a correct definition of what “property” is. If I own a piece of land with a house on it, yes, it belongs to me, but I’m not legally allowed to burn the house down, plaster pronographic pictures all over the outside of it, or run a business out of it if it isn’t zoned for such a use. I can’t actually do anything I want with it.
    Does that mean my property rights are being violated? Can the house really be said to be “mine” if the city/state government has a say in what I can do with it?
    Then, what about taxes? If I take a job, I enter into a contract with my employer, I do the work required to earn the money, but only about 80% of the money I earn is mine to do what I like with. The other 20 is taken by the government to use as it sees fit–and I have very little power over how much the government takes or what it uses it for. And then there’s that pesky estate tax: is it an intrinsic part of what “property” means that I should be able to decide what will happen with it after I die? And finally, the most drastic example of eminent domain.
    Either all this means that property rights are far from absolute, or that Romper Room lady’s definition of propery is incorrect or not meaningful. Either way, not many people would argue that we be allowed to burn our houses down if we want, or that we shouldn’t pay taxes. Even if such things do constitute an infringement on some very stringent concept of property rights, they’re necessary for living in a society, as George Castanza might say.
    So to me it’s not a dichotomy between abolition of private property and absolute property rights; but rather, to what extent can or must the government interfere with individuals’ control over their own property in order to facilitate community life–while still allowing individuals to feel assured that what is theirs is really theirs, and will continue to be?
    I think the answer is “however much we decide on,” being a democracy, we all get to decide how community resources are extracted and spent. Anyone who has no say in those decisions or whose opinions on the matter are consistently disregarded, will feel that his or her property rights are endangered. Is this a problem? Not necessarily, somebody is always going to feel that way; but if the decision making process is put into the hands of too few people at the expense of all the others, it becomes a problem.
    Or is this even the right way to think about property? Is there really any such thing as property rights, is property actually only held by individuals at the tolerance of some other entity, such as the government, until the government decides that these resources could be better used elsewhere than for the personal use of that individual? If so, there is no structural assurance that anything one has will still be there tomorrow, which also gets into the point I was attempting to make.
    Well, I certainly seem to have a lot of time on my hands. Thank you for reading and commenting!

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